Company sends out felon as traveling salesman

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by JONATHAN BETZ / WFAA

khou.com

Posted on July 11, 2012 at 10:01 AM

DENTON COUNTY, Texas - Jamie Chadwell was already in the market to upgrade her vacuum cleaner. So when two people knocked on her door in early June, offering to sell a Kirby vacuum cleaner, she welcomed them inside.

“We were actually interested in seeing if they could get a spot out of our carpet,” the mother of two said.

After the salespeople left her Denton County home however, she felt like she had been taken to the cleaners. While she watched one person demonstrate the vacuum, she said the other employee was snatching jewelry off her kitchen counter.

“This man came into my home and took my engagement ring,” Chadwell said. “As we were distracted, he was over there stealing.”

Most troubling to her, as she would later learn, was that the salesperson had a lengthy criminal record, including drug and alcohol charges. A history of which his employer was fully aware.

“We trusted him to come in, and I feel angry because they knew he was a felon when he came into our home,” she said.

Fully aware that its business model relies on homeowners trusting strangers with vacuums, Kirby said it requires all of its local distributors to run background checks on its sales force. Distributors caught in violation are penalized, the company insists.

“We require factory distributors to take all reasonable measures to ensure members of sales force do not pose a threat to consumers,” said Steve Baden, a company executive.

Yet the Cleveland-based company points out it has no direct role in hiring salespeople -- it leaves that to local independent distributors.

Yet the distributor, Ernie Nowell of Lewisville, had personal interest in hiring this salesperson. They’re related.

Nowell boasts he’s run a Kirby shop from a storefront on Lewisville’s Main Street for 43 years. Yet, the 67-year-old man admitted he was aware of his relative’s criminal past, but wanted to give him a job and a chance anyway.

“He’s been through lots,” Nowell admitted to News 8 on the phone. “He’s been through lots of rehab programs… the only problem he’s had is possession of drugs.”

He said he was aware employing the relative as a salesperson violated corporate policy.

“He is not a threat to anybody,” Nowell said. “He was as clean as a whistle, no issues… Somewhere along the way the wheels came off.”

Still Nowell insists his relative has done nothing wrong. News 8 is not naming the employee in question, since he has not been charged with stealing the ring.

Nowell said his employee had been working for him since the fall, but was let go when the Chadwells accused him of theft.

“I do pull background checks on people who come through my office,” he said. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Consumer advocates say the case is a reminder that homeowners are left largely guessing as to whether to trust door-to-door salespeople, which typically step up efforts in the summer.

“There’s not a great way to know for sure who it is that’s at your door,” said Jeannette Kopko with the Better Business Bureau of Dallas.

Nationally, she said Kirby enjoys a B+ rating.

“If you haven’t invited them there, and there’s a stranger at your doorstep,” she added, “that’s who they are: a stranger.”

Chadwell has decided against opening the door to traveling salesmen again. To drive home her stance, she’s posted a stern ‘no solicitation’ notice on her front door.

“We will never open our door to another salesperson,” she said.

E-mail jbetz@wfaa.com

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